August 27, 2014

#9: The Moment of Truth

“I've loved you all my life, even before we met. Part of it wasn't even you. It was just a promise of you.” 
– Sydney Pollack's 'The Firm' (1993)

Sometime in early 1998, I proclaimed a movie album to be my favourite of all time. It was Uttam Singh’s ‘Dil Toh Pagal Hai’ (1997). ‘Are re are ye kya hua’ is still one of those songs that uplifts me unlike most others and the romantic wistfulness of ‘Bholi-si soorat’ has been my inspiration as a poet ever since I turned one. One thing that I particularly loved about the music of this film was the programming, including the beautifully fresh interludes. In 1998, I represented my school at several science seminars and congresses. At the age of fourteen, being the only one from my batch to actually get to travel mid-semester was more than any of the privileges I was aware of. It was also the first time I was travelling, and these first long-distance train journeys had turned me into a complete romantic. I had fallen in love with the writings of Ruskin Bond and my parents had bought me my first portable stereo that I could use only on these trips as it was not allowed in hostel. Pankaj Udhas’ ‘Stolen Moments’ and Shankar Mahadevan’s claim-to-fame ‘Breathless’ were among the few cassettes I had, and soon I had learnt the latter’s title track by heart. The album, however, that was to become my favourite companion on train journeys, and still is, was ‘Dil Se’ (1998). ‘Chhaiyya Chhaiyya’ was perhaps the first song I became truly crazy for.

During the summer vacation that year the trailer of one film caught my attention. It was called ‘Satya’. Perhaps not many know that I am called ‘Anshu’ at my home, and ‘Satya’ by my school friends. So, the trailer of this movie appealed to me, and for this reason alone, because otherwise, it looked dry and Urmila Matondkar disappointed me in her all-clad avatar after her act in 'Rangeela' (1995) and 'Daud' (1997). After the vacations, one day, I heard my warden, the only teacher in our Ashrama who talked about movies, mention ‘Satya’. “I’m dying to watch it,” he said and I was left wondering – even a movie like this has people ‘dying’ to watch it? It was a new perspective for me. From that moment, I was taking this movie seriously. A couple of months later, a very close friend fractured his hand and went home for a few days. On returning he raved about the movie, that he had not seen something as stylish and gritty as this. I really valued the opinion of this friend and thus made up my mind to watch this film during Durga Puja vacations.

That October, my parents took me to Kozhikode, Kerala and ‘Satya’ was playing there. My Dad, as you all know by know, was almost averse to watching movies. But somehow, we convinced him to take us to this one movie. I am so thankful to the cinema owners in our country who never care if the people buying tickets for an adult movie are actually adults. My brother and I were not, and ‘Satya’ was an adult film, mainly because of its realistic violence and cuss words. I also loved the dingy look of the theater – we had to go through what looked like a concrete tunnel to enter it. And when I watched it, this was the first movie that completely impressed me, from its first shot, to the opening voice over, to the unlikely gangster character of Satya, and the infinitely memorable Bhiku Mhatre. I loved the songs – ‘Baadalon se kaat kaat ke’, ‘Geela geela paani’ and ‘Tu mere saath bhi hai’, apart from the obviously entertaining ‘Kallu mama’ and ‘Sapne mein milti hai’. This was also the first film whose technical brilliance affected me like never before. The scene where Satya is being beaten up by some goons at the balcony of an old building, overlooking the street below with oblivious passers-by, with the sound of rain being most prominent – no background score, no added effects for kicking and punching sounds – it was more realistic and stylish than anything I had seen before. I also remember noticing how the sound of a scene preceded its visuals, overlapping with the closing seconds of the preceding scene – something that, I later learnt, was called a ‘J-cut’. And the way the film ended, the climax on the day of Ganpati visarjan – it left me spellbound. Even my dad was deeply impressed by the film – he could not believe a film as good as this could be made in the 90s. The impact of this movie can be guessed from the fact that on my way back home, lying down on my railway berth at night when the rest of the passengers were asleep, I actually revised the entire film, scene by scene, in my head. In the months to follow, I would narrate the film to my friends in school, of course with dialogues and background score. ‘Satya’ was thus the first film that suddenly made me interested in the craft of cinema. Soon I was visualizing the filming of the Ruskin Bond stories I read. In my own world, I was turning from a film buff to a film-maker.

This May, my parents travelled to Delhi to attend the function where our directorial debut ‘Tamaash’ won a National Award. Saurabh Shukla, who played ‘Kallu Mama’ in ‘Satya’ and who was also one of the writers of the film, was also there, having won Best Supporting Actor for ‘Jolly LLB’ (2013). For me, the moment when I introduced my Dad to him and when the two men shook hands will always remain very special. Last month, ‘Tamaash’ took me to Kerala to participate in the Kerala Shorts and Documentary Festival. One evening, at Kovalam beach, I was getting some chocolates from a shop where the title track from ‘Dil Toh Paagal Hai’ was playing. As I emerged out of the shop, I passed by a Belgian couple who were humming the song, smiling with a pleasant surprise. I was so fascinated by their reaction to the song that I decided to talk to them. They told me that back in 1997 they were travelling to India, and had watched this film and this song was one of the very few Hindi songs they would recognize. Their two little daughters, who understood no language but French, watched me talk to their parents with an amused smile. It was a sweet little chat. “Au revoir” – I said, thanks to my limited knowledge of their language from the French cinema, as I rushed to the fellow film-maker friends to tell them about this wonderful little incident. It was late evening. The beach was empty and the sea was at its glorious best. Life had come full circle in the form of this wonderful trip to God’s own country where sixteen years ago I had met the inspiration of my life, a film that changed Hindi cinema of the 90s, and me, for the better.

‘The Autobiography of a Romance’ is a series of post chronicling my love affair with the movies since early childhood. To read more posts under this label, please click here and read from bottom upwards.

August 21, 2014

Short Cuts to Midway

Last couple of days have been particularly wonderful. I finished my 84-page screenplay that I had been working on for the last few months. I had come up with the idea of this film fifteen months ago. And had kept it a secret even with my brother (co-writer, co-director) all these days and finally I narrated the entire script to him. This hardly happens - that he has no idea about what I've been working on for such a long time. And when it happened, it paid off. He liked the script and we know this will be a film we'll be shooting in near future.

I also had a very good meeting regarding an upcoming assignment, the details of which will be out within a week. I am really excited about it.

However, one major highlight of the last couple of days was watching Robert Altman's 'Short Cuts' (1993). This film shared the Golden Lion at Venice with 'Three Colors: Blue', which happens to be my favourite film of all time. With the runtime of 188 minutes, 'Short Cuts' is an epic, involving more than a dozen characters from an American suburb, almost as a precursor to 'Magnolia' (1999) and 'American Beauty' (2000). The sheer ambition of the movie is intimidating -  you'll know what I mean once you have watched it. 

'Short Cuts' was also special to me for a reason very close to my heart. It became the 500th movie I've watched from this list of 1000 greatest movies ever made. This list is a really good one and I've been following it very closely. I reached 250 mark in November 2010, 333 (one-third) in November 2011, 400 in February 2013, and finally, with 'Short Cuts', I reached midway. Now the first film I watch from this will take my score to 501, meaning I'd have watched more movies than not from this list. As a cinephile, this is such a great feeling. Despite watching at least 200 movies every year, it has taken me close to four years to take my score from 250 to 500. This is because not every movie you watch may feature in such a list. The validity and relevance of great movies lists can always be argued upon. But for me, such lists always help - by keeping up my enthusiasm and excitement of watching movies of all kinds, giving me a feeling of accomplishment (this entire post has been about that) and also reminding me that there is so much more to be experienced. There are three more 1000-movies lists I follow, and one of those scores reads 298/1000. See, there is so much to be watched. And I must be glad about it!

So, as I celebrate reaching the 500 figure, here are the last ten films that helped me take my score up here from 490.

  • Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949/ UK) by Robert Hamer (Ranked 195)
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975/ Australia) by Peter Weir (Ranked 515)
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951/ USA) by Robert Wise (Ranked 864)
  • Silent Light (2007/ Mexico) by Carlos Reygadas (Ranked 848)
  • The Killer (1989/ Hong Kong) by John Woo (Ranked 685)
  • F for Fake (1973/ France) by Orson Welles (Ranked 281)
  • Chikamatsu Monogatari aka The Crucified Lovers (1954/ Japan) by Kenji Mizoguchi (Ranked 850)
  • My Life as a Dog (1985/ Sweden) by Lasse Hallstrom (Ranked 697)
  • Faces (1968/ USA) by John Cassavetes (Ranked 220)
  • Short Cuts (1993/ USA) by Robert Altman (Ranked 474)

August 14, 2014

On Writing

This is one of the best things I have read about 'writing', one of the most powerful. This is something all writers should read, and also those who say they are writers.

“To sum it all up, if you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish for you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories—science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

- Ray Bradbury (American Author)

August 01, 2014

Narrative Elements of Film

Man has been telling stories much before he learned to write. Through cave paintings, through epics passed on to generations as oral tradition, and then subsequently through different forms of the written word, poetry, plays, novels, operas, songs, comic books, photo features and eventually cinema, the human urge to tell stories has never been satiated, nor has our desire to listen to one. Between all these forms or media of communicating a story there have been some common elements, and then there have been story elements unique to a certain medium. Similarly, what type or kind of stories will work on one medium vis a vis another is also something we have been discovering all this while. For me, personally, it has been a matter of great fulfilment to try to understand the dynamics of cinematic storytelling and how telling a story on film is different from other forms of human expression. In this post, I have tried to briefly summarise some elements of storytelling with respect to the motion picture. This, in my opinion, is only an introduction to the world of cinematic storytelling. So here they are, the eight narrative elements of film:

1. Character: If there is one element of good stories that is common through all ages and narrative forms, and if there is one unbroken rule of successful storytelling, it is this - creating compelling characters whose story the world would want to listen. We, and our society, are obsessed with this incorrigible need to create heroes whom we can look upto, heroes whom we can admire, care for, whose wins matter to us, whose losses we hate to endure. Creating an unforgettable, relatable, likeable protagonist, and making him or her face a ruthless, mean, unforgiving antagonist has been the most common recipe of several great stories. And then, you need to add to the mix an interesting ensemble of supporting characters, an 'orchestration' where the individual parts complement each other like different musical instruments playing together to create a moving symphony. Think of any film you love, and you can be certain that it has great characters. Even writers who have broken different rules of film writing, read Quentin Tarantino et al, have not been able to break this one absolute rule. You want to write a film that the world loves? Make the audience invest in your characters, and the sooner the better.

2. Plot: A story is always a journey that its characters take. Whether it is a self-reflective, internal monologue of a novel, or an adventure ride of a movie - the characters, especially the protagonist(s), undertake an emotional or physical journey that causes some change in them by the end. The course of this journey is marked by events - incidents and experiences that the protagonist faces. The plot is the series of these events, from the beginning, through the middle, until the end, that gives us the feeling of the forward motion (or motionlessness) of the story. The most important events of the plot are often significant irreversible incidents that change the course of the plot and push it further ahead. These events are called Plot Points. When Neo Anderson takes the red pill and decides to understand what is wrong with him, when Bhuvan accepts the challenge from the British Captain on behalf of his village, when Simran meets Raj on the first day of her Europe trip, when Jack saves Rose from committing suicide over the deck of the mighty ship - we know their respective stories have changed irreversibly and moved ahead. These are all examples of Plot Points. The plot can be thin or thick, but it is this that forms the body of your story.

3. Conflict: Imagine what would have happened if Bhuvan and the villagers already knew the game of cricket and easily defeated the British to get rid of their taxes. If Jack were of the same social status as Rose and the ship had sailed smoothly to reach its destination, if Simran enjoyed absolute freedom and she and Raj had no friction whatsoever when they met and her Dad had no problem with him as his son-in-law, or if Neo had a doubtless, riskless journey of realising that he was 'the One' - these stories would be as dead as logs of wood. Conflict is the bread and butter of drama. The more you can involve the audience into the conflicted situations of your characters, the more problems you can create for your protagonists and make them overcome those one by one, the more successful your storytelling will be. Also, any level of conflict or drama starts appearing redundant, repetitive or lukewarm unless you keep increasing the stakes and keep coming up with bigger conflicts. Especially as a storyteller on film, we need to keep raising the tension and thickening the action to make sure the collective attention and interest of hundreds of people watching the film stays with us. How to do it without making it look manipulative or convenient is something we have been trying to learn for all these years. And this is something that each film writer struggles with, even after years of experience.

4. Resolution: So how does it end? If you have told a gripping story, it better end well, or the audience will feel terribly cheated. In cinema, particularly, the ending is very important because hundreds of people are going to react together to it as they exit the theater. And their 'Exit Door Reaction', or EDR - a word that I have coined, can make or break your movie on which crores of rupees are riding. I have read several good novels that have weak final act, but perhaps none of the great movies suffer from this. A climactic resolution to the already thickening plot, a final confrontation of the protagonist with the antagonistic forces, a final Plot Point, that is emotionally, dramatically, and visually the high point of the film is very important to complete your movie experience. And this closure, this resolution of the primary conflict of the film, or the lack of it (as is the case with tragedies), often brings forth the 'point of the movie'. The resolution should also, generally, cause a significant change in the life of the protagonist. After all, is a story worth telling, if it is not signifcant for its own protagonist?

5. Structure: "A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order." This wonderful quote by Jean-Luc Godard is perhaps the simplest way to put across the importance of structure. Also, the pleasures of structure are more apparent and impactful in a movie than any other form of narration. From 'Citizen Kane' to 'The Killing', from 'Mystery Train' to 'Pulp Fiction', from 'Irreversible' to 'Memento' to 'Amores Perros' and '21 Grams' - playing with time, twisting the plot, and constantly challenging the audience has been a wonderful game moviemakers have been indulging in. But I would also like to insist that a simple, linear narrative is at times equally powerful, if not more. Imagine the timeless story of 'Bicycle Thieves' told in flashback when the last scene has already been played and then the entire film is an explanation of that. Would that ever cause the heartbreak that the film's simple, linear design does? Determining the correct structure for your story is like deciding on how to dress yourself for a certain ceremony. From your reputation to the impact you can make may depend so majorly on that. Personally, I find this, determining the structure of a film I am writing, the most exciting stage of film writing.

6. Scenes: A scene is the building block of a screenplay, its most basic unit that has its own independent, whole existence. Technically speaking, everything happening at one place at one time in the film is a scene. The moment you change the location or jump time, you have entered a new scene. It is this wonderful ability of a scene to actually make you feel that "you were there" is what makes cinema a "live" emotional experience. Unlike all other forms of narrative, cinema is very much a "real" experience, even when it is telling an outright fantastical tale. So the importance of scenes as its units can never be stressed enough. When does the scene begin (it may enter the 'event' or the 'incident' a little late) or when it ends (we may leave earlier, abruptly, leaving something for the imagination) is as important as the internal dramatic structure of the scene and how the events unfold in it. Also important is the transition from one scene to the other. If scenes are stitched together to form one seamless whole, we very willingly lose ourselves into the universe of our characters. Scenes from great films also create unforgettable moments that gain iconic status in cinema history. Rose and Jack standing together with her arms wide open on the bow of the ship as it pierces the heart of the mighty ocean is an image that will live forever. A moment or scene as cinematically powerful as this can also be among the biggest motivations for the creative talent involved in the tedious filming process.

7. Dialogue: From creating characters that we worship forever to conveying the biggest plot truths, from bringing out the internal and external conflicts to establishing the significance of a powerful resolution, from constructing the internal drama of the scenes to being wonderful transitional devices, dialogue or spoken lines are one of the most conspicuous elements of film narrative. Each line spoken in a film may serve several functions - from entertaining and seducing the audience to making them empathise with even the coldest of characters, and dialogue, as well as conscious and economical lack of it, forms a major part of our movie-viewing pleasure. However, more often than not, bad dialogue also completely ruins the film. "Show, not tell" and "Less is more" - these rules are perfectly apt for film writing. "In a novel, a character thinks. In a play, he talks. In cinema, he does" - this is another broad generalisation that I love. Cinematic dialogue is so different from any other narrative medium. And if done well, smart and tasteful dialogue becomes an inseparable part of popular culture more succesfully than any other story element of films.

8. Visuals: Perhaps the most unique of all narrative elements discussed above is something that is most integral to motion pictures - the visuals. It is no wonder that cinema is the youngest human expression - it had to wait hundreds of years, until photography was invented. And thanks to this "real" reproduction of images, cinema could actually become this powerful and impactful form of mass communication. Apart from making the story appear real and inviting, the visuals in cinema transcend time and cultural boundaries. I so often feel thankful to cinema for having shown me different cultures and lands and people when I have never stepped out of my country. Well-done compositions, purposefully designed color-palettes, and metaphoric use of images not only enhance the aesthetic pleasure of watching a film, they also give film its own unique grammar, form, and expression. It is important to mention 'visuals' as one of the narrative elements of cinema, although its depiction mainly depends on how the film is shot, because a film writer has to understand the visual potential of this medium. And unless the film writer imagines it, great and unforgettable visuals will never be created. And if not for the visual spleandour that cinema is, we would remain contented with the good old novels and fables and folk tales.

P.S. Apart from these eight basic elements of cinematic storytelling, there is one more that some writers and many viewers put a great deal of importance to. It is the 'theme' of the film, the 'moral of the story'. Often during discussions on a film, we tend to emphasise so much on its philosophical message or its socio-political implications. I, personally, do not consider this as an essential element of film narrative. I do not believe in making films to change the world, although I accept the power this medium possesses. I also do not find it an obligation to tell stories with certain moral obligations. For me, the only approach to take while creating a screenplay is to find interesting characters who have got something going on in their lives that is so universally appealing that it will always find audience. And also, I believe, each story that is well told, carries a moral or a theme, whether the writer intends to convey it or not.